HL Deb 26 June 1997 vol 580 cc1707-16

7.40 p.m.

Lord Howie of Troon rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to end the use of asbestos-based products in the United Kingdom construction industry.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the House will be well aware of my longstanding connection with the construction industry, although in recent years I have been more of a commentator and journalist than a participant on the building site. I hope that after this debate we shall see the end of the use of asbestos materials in the construction industry.

However, I must begin with a confession. Many years ago when I was a young structural engineer in the late 1940s, designing and seeing built industrial buildings of various kinds, we used a great deal of asbestos as cladding material on the roofs and sides of buildings. We thought then that it was a useful construction material. Because we thought it was useful we used it. We did not then realise that it was not only useful but lethal. We now realise how dangerous it is and we wish to see its use brought to an end.

The term "asbestos" refers to a group of fibrous materials which have useful construction qualities. They have high tensile strength; they conduct heat poorly and they are highly fireproof. There are three main forms of asbestos: chrysotile, amosite and crocidolite. These are popularly known as white, blue and brown asbestos respectively. Because of the well-known dangers which they pose, blue and brown asbestos have been banned in the United Kingdom and throughout western Europe for some time. White asbestos, however, is also regarded as a killer by the Health and Safety Executive. The following point is the important part of my submission tonight. Nevertheless in 1994, 71,200 tonnes of asbestos cement products were imported to this country, mainly from Canada and South Africa although some came from elsewhere. Those products are used in the construction of new buildings and in the maintenance of existing ones. I am not talking here about asbestos that, historically, is found in situ; I am talking about new asbestos which is being imported to this country and used in the construction industry.

There are four main diseases connected with asbestos. They are not invariably fatal although some of them are, but they are always debilitating. The Health and Safety Executive maintains that asbestos can never be regarded as absolutely safe. The Construction Safety Campaign calculates that 3,500 people are killed by asbestos each year and that those in most danger are in the construction industry. The Institute of Cancer Research has estimated that deaths from asbestos inhalation will triple by the end of the century and might reach 10,000 a year by then. Therefore a clear danger exists. What can be done about it?

Last September the Health and Safety Commission recommended that the Government should extend the European Union's existing ban on asbestos to cover the use of white asbestos as well as blue and brown asbestos, except for a small number of applications where no satisfactory alternative is readily available. Unfortunately that recommendation was not taken up by the Government at the time. In a debate in another place last year the then Government recognised that there was a problem, but they were more concerned with the management of asbestos already in place and in increasing awareness of the danger among construction workers and in the industry. The Minister at the time, James Clappison, said, it is Government policy that asbestos materials that are undamaged and are not releasing fibres should be managed in situ. Materials that are slightly damaged should be repaired and sealed or encapsulated. Only materials that are badly damaged or are likely to be disturbed or damaged should be removed".

No one would argue with that, as far as it goes, but it fails to deal with imported materials. In fact it rather implies that imported materials are safe to be used in schools, other public buildings and private homes, whether they contain asbestos or not. However, these building materials—roof tiles, for example—are easily damaged during transit or installation or in case of fire. Continuing to use them only adds to the problems of management which concerned Mr. Clappison.

There is, however, a management problem in identifying asbestos material imports. On 18th June the rapporteur of a Council of Europe report on asbestos, Tom Cox, MP, stated in another place that his committee was deeply concerned about the inadequate labelling of materials. In the same debate another Member said that the materials coming in from Poland were poorly labelled and that many construction companies were using roofing slates and other materials imported from Poland unaware that they contained asbestos.

The obvious solution is to ban the importation of asbestos materials where suitable alternatives exist. As regards housebuilding, there are suitable alternatives, the most obvious of which is slate. It is not only suitable but it is also a much better material for roofing, as anyone with eyes in his head can see. It is more environmentally friendly, as we tend to say nowadays. Of course there are environmental enthusiasts who would quibble at the creation or extension of slate quarries. However, slate quarries are a minor blemish on the environment and their extension is preferable to continued disabilities and deaths.

However, it has been argued in the industry that it would be impractical to impose a ban except over a lengthy period. However, France announced a ban on white asbestos last July which came into effect on 1st January this year. The manufacturers of asbestos products were able to shift to other materials without great difficulty. If it can be done in France I rather imagine that it can probably be done here too.

Of course asbestos imports cannot be stopped entirely. They are needed, for example, in the motor industry for brake linings and other such things. However, I am talking tonight about the construction industry where the materials are still used. But asbestos is not needed in construction. I wonder whether the new Government will bring a ray of light to this matter. I notice that last October Frank Dobson, who was then an environment spokesman, demanded a ban on hazardous asbestos products such as roof slates. He also wanted tougher penalties on businesses which expose workers to dangerous asbestos, and more activity by the Health and Safety Executive in identifying and eradicating dangerous asbestos. Those are brave and bold words. I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that the time has now come to deliver.

7.50 p.m.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, we all owe a debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lord Howie of Troon for introducing the debate on this most important subject. As he described, asbestos is dangerous. It has been a known danger for many years. We recognise that responsible people have tackled the problem in a number of different ways. I give one example from Manchester City Council. As early as 1983 it adopted a policy to deal with asbestos in council premises. In 1984 it set up a dedicated asbestos removal unit within the direct works department which provides a service for all council buildings in which asbestos is a problem.

At its annual conference recently, the MSF Union unanimously passed a resolution calling for the total banning of asbestos. The motion was moved eloquently by a member of the union whose branch is involved in the construction industry. He told us harrowing tales of numbers of his branch members dying as a result of asbestosis.

In preparing for the debate, I was absolutely shocked to discover that asbestos roof tiles are still being marketed and sold in this country. We need to recognise the vulnerability of people who suffer ill health and death from asbestos. That does not extend only to building workers but to people in buildings where asbestos is loose. As my noble friend pointed out, asbestos is also used in other areas. I highlight the automotive industry, where it can be used in brake, clutch and gasket linings.

I have to advise my noble friend that the requirement for asbestos in the automotive industry is no longer necessary. There are alternatives; and new design techniques can ensure that all new automotive products can he built without the need for asbestos.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, I am happy to agree with my noble friend, as I often do. But he has overlooked the fact that in this country a substantial number of older cars, including my own, require asbestos. He is right regarding new cars, but the problem with older cars exists.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I take the point my noble friend makes. I shall come back to it later.

However, if there were a total ban on asbestos I am sure that modern engineering technology could develop alternative products that would fit the older motor cars to which my noble friend refers. I believe that that is now within the technical capability of the industry.

We need to recognise the realities of life. My noble friend mentioned that older motor cars have used asbestos for brake and clutch linings. I, too, have had cars of that generation. The position is almost worse than he suggests. I used to do my own maintenance—I still do—on old and decrepit motor cars. In order to keep brake and clutch linings going beyond their normal life, you can knock out with a wire brush the glazing that sometimes occurs. That is probably one of the worst things you can do with an asbestos product. It generates particles.

Many years ago a friend of mine was demolishing his garage which had an asbestos tiled roof. He asked me whether I wanted anything from the garage he was demolishing. I thanked him; and we took off all the asbestos tiles. I spent many happy hours brushing off the tiles with a wire brush to make them suitable for reuse. Again, that was probably a horrendous thing to do with asbestos tiles.

I give those two examples in order to articulate the realities of people's lives, in particular, if I may so put it, at the bottom end of economic activity. If people are poor they cannot afford new parts and have to make do and mend. There will be practices that experts would frown upon and think are horrendous. We need to realise that these activities go on. Those realities form part of the argument that I put forward for a total ban so that eventually the risk of inhalation of asbestos dust leading to illness is eradicated.

My noble friend referred to the fact that France has banned asbestos products. He deployed the argument that we should ban asbestos products in the building industry. I agree with that. I argue that we need a total ban on asbestos in this country. But we need to think in terms of the European dimension. We have supposedly a single market with free movement of products. So we need to recognise that there is a need for a total ban across Europe on asbestos. If we say that such a ban is good for Europe, surely we should argue on the worldwide stage that asbestos should not be used in future. In doing so, we need to recognise the damage that can occur to people involved in mining asbestos and in producing asbestos-based products. People in the supply chain also suffer quite significantly.

In arguing that we should stop the production, manufacture and distribution of asbestos worldwide, we must also recognise that alternative employment and economic activity will be required for those involved in the asbestos industry. I hope that my noble friend does not mind my widening the terms of his debate. It is an important subject. I am sure that my noble friend on the Front Bench who will wind up will not be able to say, "Yes, yes, yes", to all that I have suggested, but I hope that the Government will bear these points in mind.

7.58 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I do not intend to take up a great deal of the House's time. I am anxious to listen to the Minister on this subject. However, I believe that the debate has become a little confused about the types of asbestos. I do not pretend to the technical knowledge of the noble Lord, Lord Howie. However, my impression is that there are two types of asbestos which one might call unacceptable—the blue and the brown—and the white which merely qualifies as undesirable and which it would be nice to replace. If one had had the sense not to call all three "asbestos", for some earlier convenience, and were to rename the white "Howie-ite", everyone would love it.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, I am charmed as always by the noble Lord. But he overlooks the fact that the Health and Safety Executive does not like white asbestos. It does not merely think that it is undesirable; it thinks that it is a killer. That is the HSE's word not mine.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the Health and Safety Executive recommended that we make efforts to phase it out. In its view, it is clearly not a killer on the scale of blue asbestos on which there is a total ban. There are many risks in this world that one wishes to see reduced and one works towards that end. The Health and Safety Executive has gained a very strong reputation in that regard. It has been a most successful agency and has justifiably built up a reputation in which many people are prepared to place a great deal of faith.

I am sure that, as the Government review all these matters, especially the question as to how the Food Safety Agency will work, they will re-examine the structure of the Health and Safety Executive in order to see whether that also needs some updating—whether it is as open, as independent of scientists, whether it has enough truly independent members, to do as well in the next 20 years as it has in the past. It has a very strong record. We and the Government are entitled to rely on the advice it provides and the balancing of risk and need that it has undertaken in these circumstances, and to respect its independence from government, which is such an important part of its constitution.

I should be interested to hear from the Minister whether she intends to follow the advice of the agency and to proceed along the lines that it recommended. The Government should always have an ability to differ from the advice given by such agencies. It is an important part of a government's function that they introduce political decision on top of the technical and thoughtful decisions of the Health and Safety Executive. However, in these circumstances, when the advice is so obviously reasonable and well thought out, I hope the noble Baroness will feel able to accept it.

To turn briefly to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, he has clearly flourished on his time spent scraping away at tiles and brake linings and is in excellent health. So long as they were made of white asbestos, I believe the noble Lord has a very good chance of living to a very ripe old age and keeping us entertained for a great deal longer.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I would point out that one of the difficulties with asbestosis is that the ill health and death that result from it can have quite a long time delay. That does not make it any better or easier for those who suffer from the affliction.

8.2 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Howie for the eloquent and most persuasive arguments that he put forward to support his case for banning new uses of asbestos in the construction industry. I am also grateful for the other two contributions, from my noble friend Lord Monkswell and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.

Your Lordships need have no fear about this Labour Government's solid determination to do whatever is necessary to safeguard human health against the dangers posed to it by asbestos. People's lives are sacrosanct: we will take all steps necessary to protect them. Indeed, that will be our general approach to health and safety. We will give the subject a high level of ministerial support.

The plain fact is that asbestos is a scourge on our society. The death toll from asbestos related diseases, and the misery caused to those who lose their loved ones, are quite unacceptable.

As my noble friend Lord Monkswell said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and as my noble friend Lord Howie indicated, all asbestos related diseases have a very long latency period: 15 to 20 years. The deaths that are occurring now are the result of exposure that distance of time away. Projections for the next 20 years are based on past and current exposure.

Your Lordships must be horrified to hear of the scale of the toll exacted on human life by asbestos. The figure was given by my noble friend Lord Howie for the numbers of people—3,500, who die each year from asbestos related diseases. Last year, 1,200 people were killed by mesothelioma and nearly double that number died from lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. The most alarming and worrying prospect is that this terrible toll of death is set to continue to rise over the next 20 to 30 years. On top of that, there are many people suffering ill health as well. Exposure to asbestos is causing too much suffering and needless death. This Government are determined to put a stop to that, although we realise that most of today's suffering is due to exposure to asbestos that occurred many years ago.

As my noble friend Lord Howie said, one of the difficulties that we face is the sheer scale on which asbestos has been used in the construction of buildings. Large quantities have been used over many years in buildings such as schools, hospitals and office blocks. Workers engaged, for example, in refurbishment or demolition work are at risk if they do not know that asbestos is present. The area of work that has been tackled, referred to by my noble friend Lord Monkswell, is a very important one. That is one problem that must be addressed. But equally worrying is the continued use of asbestos products in the construction industry: the substance is still imported and is therefore readily available for use in new buildings or in the refurbishment of existing ones. We are determined to act on both counts.

I commend the work of the Health and Safety Commission in the high priority it has given to controlling work with asbestos. Indeed, I commend all the work that the commission and its executive have done in the field of health and safety. I assure my noble friends, and the House, that the approach of this Labour Government will be strongly to support the work of the Health and Safety Commission and its executive. We shall be positive and proactive in our support to them.

I have said that the commission has given priority to controlling work with asbestos. The import and supply of the most dangerous forms of the substance have, as all the speakers said, been banned for many years—that is to say, the so-called "blue" and "brown" asbestos; and there are the Control of Asbestos at Work regulations. But, despite these vital steps, blue and brown asbestos remain in buildings and so present a considerable risk to those working there—often there is no way of knowing that asbestos is present. The commission has acted to address that problem: there has been an extensive publicity campaign to raise awareness of it among building workers, who, as we know from research, are the most vulnerable group.

Where it is necessary, the Health and Safety Executive will pursue through the courts those who breach health and safety law relating to asbestos. The courts have already imposed a custodial sentence in a case where the law was not properly observed. I should like to see more sentences of this kind to deter others who may be contemplating breaking the law.

Equally, I should like to see stiffer financial penalties imposed by the courts when the HSE is successful in securing a conviction. The average fine secured in the past five years for a breach of those regulations was a mere £.1,120. That is hardly the right sort of deterrent to prevent all those companies working with asbestos from flouting the law. Given the structure of the construction and demolition industries, where sub-contracting and so-called self-employment are commonplace, there needs to be a very strong deterrent to firms which ignore sensible health and safety regulation, as so many appear to do with breath-taking arrogance and tragic results.

Woefully inadequate fines by the courts for health and safety offences are a problem that greatly concerns the Government. We are looking into this with the help of the Health and Safety Commission. Bad employers and operators must be hit hard where it hurts so as to force them to take their health and safety responsibilities seriously. People's lives depend upon it.

In addition to the strides forward made by the commission over recent years, it has other measures on its agenda that will greatly help to deal with the continuing problems caused by asbestos. It is now considering extending the current licensing scheme on asbestos stripping to include work with asbestos insulation board, an area of high risk, and a new statutory duty on building owners and occupiers to survey for the presence of asbestos, thus making it known where hidden dangers lie. How many other workers have been in the same position as my noble friend Lord Monkswell of working with this deadly product without being fully aware of the consequences? The commission is also considering the circumstances in which a licence to remove asbestos can be revoked, enabling the cowboys in the construction trade to be eliminated; and reinforcing the pressure on Europe to extend existing import prohibitions.

The work in Europe is extremely important. There are already stringent EU controls on the most hazardous forms of asbestos, which are fully implemented in the UK. The prohibitions on white asbestos still allow a significant number of uses. We must challenge those uses and question whether they are still needed.

We are aware of the important work of the Health and Safety Commission and its executive and the sound, positive action that it wishes to see taken. The Government believe that much more needs to be done, and we have put action in place. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions announced last week in another place that the commission has been asked for advice on how more urgent action can be taken and for that advice to reach Ministers quickly. We appreciate, as my noble friend Lord Howie said, the need for this consideration to take place as quickly and effectively as possible.

As I have indicated, the Government see much merit in the commission's idea of a new duty on those responsible for buildings to survey for the presence of asbestos. If the location of asbestos is known, it can be properly treated and handled. Very important too, a new duty to survey will mean that people are not unaware of the existence of the killer substance.

I applaud, as does my noble friend Lord Monkswell, the tireless work of the trades unions in focusing public attention on the continuing need for tough action on asbestos. The Government look forward to receiving soon the commission's advice on this important initiative. But an equally worrying problem which needs to be tackled is, as my noble friend Lord Howie said, the continuing level of imports into this country of chrysotile—that is to say, white asbestos. It comes into the UK as both raw fibre and products, and supplies are finding their way to the construction industry. As has been said, poor labelling could be part of the problem. It is clear that users may still be ignorant of the fact that they are using this product.

About half the asbestos used in this country is in asbestos-cement products such as corrugated sheeting and roofing tiles. Here I pay tribute to the work done in the Council of Europe in looking at this problem. There are alternatives. Significant parts of the construction industry are already turning to those alternatives, and that is welcome. Asbestos must not be the first choice because it is cheaper than the alternatives—cheaper financially but much dearer in its costs in human lives and suffering. The construction industry must not put costs before human life. An industry-led drive in favour of the alternatives would result in an expansion of the market in asbestos alternatives, which we hope could lead to a downward pressure on their price.

The Government recognise, however, that there are still some very specialised uses of asbestos where alternatives cannot yet be used, either because they provide significantly lower levels of performance in safety-critical applications or because the alternatives themselves pose a risk to human health. But users must not use those arguments as a smokescreen; and certainly those uses must be strictly limited in number and apply only in cases where no viable alternative is available. I have yet to be convinced that there are any uses in the construction industry that need to remain.

The need for any derogations will be considered. We must wait for the advice from the Health and Safety Commission before making a decision on which derogations are appropriate.

I have said that the most dangerous forms of asbestos, the brown and blue, have already been banned. The Government now believe that the time has come to get rid of the remaining uses of asbestos. It is time to seek to ban white asbestos. For some years now, as noble Lords and my noble friend Lord Howie have said, there has been a proposal on the table in Europe to extend the existing prohibitions on blue and brown asbestos to white asbestos. While, unfortunately, no agreement has been reached on this important proposal and it has lain dormant, it is now, after action by the French last year to prohibit almost all supply of asbestos, possible to give greater urgency to the European proposal. I welcome that news, and we shall play our part as good Europeans. The Health and Safety Executive is to second a senior official to the European Commission to work on the necessary Community legislation.

Irrespective of these important developments in Europe, however, the Government have concluded that there is a need for us to consider taking steps in this country now to address the problem of white asbestos. We have taken action on this already. In our first weeks in office we have met the Health and Safety Commission and asked it to advise us urgently on how a domestic ban on the import, supply and use of asbestos can be put in place as soon as possible.

We naturally want to see speedy action, but equally, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, we do not want to act irresponsibly. The commission has a statutory duty to consult in formulating proposals for Ministers to consider. We value that consultation so that all the practicalities can be taken into account in formulating proposals for Ministers to consider. This is an important subject and the commission will play an important role.

This has been a useful debate on a subject which contains within it many human tragedies and much human suffering. I hope that my noble friend Lord Howie will welcome the positive and constructive response of the Government to his Question.